Considerations on the Religion of Numa on the Roman People

For many ancient peoples religion was a connection to the past. Above anything else, religion was supreme in the city. Everything focused on religion and the worship of the city’s gods. For the Roman people this was no different and like other ancient peoples their religion began when their founder died. Romulus was said to have been taken into the sky and deified. The Romans worshipped Romulus (named Quirinus) as the god of agriculture. However, it was not Romulus who succeeded in creating the Roman state religion; rather that honor went to Numa Pompilius (here after simply Numa). Niccolo Machiavelli states, “It will also be seen by those who pay attention to Roman history, how much religion helped in the control of armies, in encouraging plebs, in producing good men, and in shaming the bad.”[1] Certainly this importance was due to Numa rather than Romulus as the former is credited with the foundation of religion in Rome. Numa based the Roman religion on the physical world. Unlike their better known Greek counterparts, the Roman gods were based on the things of nature. It was possibly this distinct difference which led the Roman religion to dominate state affairs in such a way until the Second Punic War when Rome was invaded by Greek thought and religion. Until the Second Punic War, the Romans were dominated by a religion created by Numa with the intent to subdue a savage spirit introduced by Romulus. Numa’s importance is certainly clear as both the founder of the state religion and the law giver for the Romans; his religion would go on to play a vital role in three ways for the Roman people: the calendar, daily life and war. Even into the Second Punic War, when the traditional religion of Rome was nearly eliminated the strands of Numa’s religion still held onto the Roman people. In the Roman state during the regal and republican years, the religion introduced by Numa served as a significant influence on the affairs of the state and of the people.

Rome’s founding is hidden amongst fables, myths and legend. Whether or not there ever was a Romulus or Numa is a matter of dispute. What is not a matter of dispute, however, is that their supposed influences on the people of Rome made it the most dominate city the world has ever seen. Based on Plutarch’s account of Numa’s life, he was roughly forty years old at the time he was offered kingship of Rome[2]. Numa’s example would ultimately affect the Roman people in general. Plutarch records:

He banished all luxury and softness from his own home, and while citizens alike and strangers found in him an incorruptible judge and counselor, in private he devoted himself not to amusement or lucre, but to the worship of the immortal gods, and rational contemplation of their divine power and nature.[3]

His character alone was enough of an example on the Roman people; however he did more upon accepting the office of King. Before accepting the kingship, even, Numa requested that the auguries be taken to show that the gods did in fact favor his rule.[4] In his second act as King, Numa, “add[ed] two priests of Jupiter and Mars a third, in honour of Romulus, whom he called Flamen Quirinalis.” [5] Thus, having won the favor of the people, Numa began to subdue the harsh Roman spirit in favor of a more gentle nature. He introduced religion as a means of tempering the soul, as Plutarch explains, “Wherefore Numa, judging it no slight undertaking to mollify and bend to peace the presumptuous and stubborn spirits of the people, began to operate upon them with the sanctions of religion.”[6] Numa is said to have received the Roman religion from the goddess Egeria, whom he conversed with by the river.

Numa introduced a number of new offices, which were of religious significance; among these offices was Pontifex Maximus whose job it was to declare divine law and to rule over sacred ceremonies; the Pontifex Maximus was fifth in the religious hierarchy behind “the rex sacrorum and three great flamens.” [7] In like manner, Numa concerted a temple to the goddess Vesta who was the oldest of all Roman goddesses and a symbol of purity. Her priestesses, called Vestal virgins, were given the task of keeping lit the sacred flame. The virgins were to remain as such for thirty years, if they broke their vow of chastity or allowed the sacred flame to go out the offending virgin would be buried alive. This office was the most sacred of all holy offices within the Roman state. The Pontifex Maximus lead the six Vestal virgins.[8] The first ten years of a Vestal’s service were spent in training, the second ten were spent performing her duties while the final three were spent training new Vestals. The Vestal Virgins were so important that it is said when another official passed one that they would order the fasces lowered.

The second god to receive such high favor was Janus, Vesta’s counterpart. Janus was the Roman god of doors and beginnings and his priest was first in the hierarchy, the rex sacrorum. It is with Janus, in Numa’s attempt to further temper the spirits of the Romans that he established the month of January. Janus was closely related with Juno and unlike Vesta was a creator. The rex sacrorum holds a specific place of honor in the Republic as being the only office to bear the title of rex, which according to many Roman historians was loathed by the Roman people. The great gates of the city were in honor of Janus, when they were open the city was at war and while they were closed the city was at peace. During Numa’s entire reign as king the gates were never opened. Plutarch specifically mentions two other priesthoods founded by Numa, “the Salii and Fecials.” [9] Both of these other priesthoods will be discussed at a later point when it is appropriate.

The influence of the offices of the Vestals and Janus priests dealt with the daily lives of the Roman people. Numa successfully diverted the attention of the people away from war towards religion. He demanded the utmost respect towards religion by the people, as Plutarch describes “Numa, in like manner, wished that his citizens should neither see nor hear any religious service in perfunctory and inattentive manner, but, laying aside all other occupations, should apply their minds to religion as to a most serious business…”[10] Cicero concurs with Plutarch by state, “He desired the performance of religious rituals to be difficult but the equipment for them to be very simple: he required many things to be learned and performed, but he made them inexpensive; he thus added effort to religious observances but removed the cost.”[11] There certainly were plenty of occasions for the people to turn their attention away from other occupations. He is credited with organizing the people into guilds based on their occupations. Plutarch once again describes:

So distinguishing the whole people by the several arts and trades, he formed the companies of musicians, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, shoemakers, skinners, braziers, and potters; and all other handicraftsmen he composed and reduced into a single company, appointing everyone their proper courts, councils, and religious observances. [12]

Their placement according to their occupation created structure within the Roman state and made each guild responsible for certain aspects of their daily lives. This helped to divert their attention away from war by focusing on the daily tasks at hand.

Numa’s greatest accomplishment came in the ordering of the calendar. In order to remedy the differences between the lunar solar orbits, Numa instituted an intercalary month. This month would consist of twenty-two days and according to Plutarch was called, “Mercedinus.” Numa also changed the orders of the months: March went from being the first month to the third, January went from being the eleventh month to the first and February went from last to second. Numa added the months of January and February as Plutarch accounts “for in the beginning they had had a year of then months.”[13] The month of February comes from februa; the month was a purification month filled with offerings to the dead. Plutarch explains Numa’s decision to place January first as, “he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are preferred before those of war.”[14] In order to do so, Numa instituted festivals and games for the people, “He also began markets and games and all sorts of occasions for gatherings and festivals. By these institutions he restored to humane and gentle behavior the minds of men who had become savage and inhuman through their love of war.”[15] Among the festivals fixed to the calendar, Jupiter and Mars had the most festivals held in their honor but Mars had the most between the two gods. Jupiter had two major festivals of a political nature, Regifugium on February 24th and Poplifugium on July 5th. Mars had one festival on two separate dates connected with war, Equiria on February 27th and March 14th both of these were connected horses who were sacrificed to Mars. Quinquartrus on March 19th and Tubilustrum on March 23rd saw arms and trumpets dedicated to the god. October saw the end of the military campaign season and two feasts held in honor of Mars: equus october on October 15th and the purification of arms (Armilustrum) on October 23rd.[16] Festivals to the gods occupied much of the Roman calendar, mostly in hopes of diverting the war like nature of the Romans towards more peaceful endeavors.

As a major portion of daily life, Numa altered some aspects. As well as being the founder of the state civil religion in Rome, Numa is credited with being the law giver to the Romans. His office as law giver works closely with his duties as founder of the civil religion. For instance, Numa repealed the “law which gave power to the fathers to sell their children…”[17] Plutarch continues by explaining, “he exempted such as were married, conditionally that it had been with the liking and consent of their parents; for it seemed a hard thing that a woman who had given herself in marriage to a man whom she judged free should afterwards find herself living with a slave.” [18] These are significant changes insofar as Numa has changed pater familias, or father of the family, which gave rule over the family completely to the eldest male member. Numa also changed the governance of burials; he required the Romans to worship Libitina, who presided over all burial ceremonies. He regulated the days in which mourning could take place, Plutarch outlines, “a child of three years was not to be mourned at all; the longest time of mourning for any person whatsoever was not to exceed the term of ten months….”[19] Any woman who remarried before the end of ten month mourning period ended was required to sacrifice a pregnant cow.  The Romans were especially concerned with belief in life after death, “maintained by sacrifices and libations, and governed by strict observance of rites the neglect of which brought terrible dangers to those who failed to keep them up.”[20] The Romans also believed in a deity called Manes, who would come back for retribution if the proper rituals were not kept up by their decedents. Many feasts were held in honor of the dead, the feast of the Lemuria took place on the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May.  The pater familias was required in the middle of the night to run through each silent room barefoot snapping his fingers to ward off the spirits of the dead. He was then to wash his hands three times in running water, “and took black beans in his mouth, which he spat over his shoulder, he cried nine times: ‘I spit out these beans and with them I redeem me and mine.’” He would then purify himself once more and strike “his hands on a bronze vessel, saying nine times: ‘Manes of my fathers, begone!’”  The extent in which religion touched on the private life was significant in Rome. Numa insured that the religion would be preserved both in the private and public.

After all these great accomplishments, Numa finally perished of old age after living roughly eighty years. Numa’s reign lasted forty-three years versus Romulus impressive thirty-seven year reign. According to Livy, “When Numa died, Rome by the twin disciplines of peace and war was as eminent for self-mastery as for military power.”[21] Numa’s legacy on the Roman people lead them to become prosperous, Machiavelli writes, “All things considered, therefore, I conclude that the religion introduced by Numa was among the primary causes of Rome’s success, for this entailed good institutions; good institutions lead to good fortune; and from good fortune arose the happy results of undertakings.”[22] His institution of religion allowed the Romans the good fortune they experienced for the next few centuries. The people were diverted from military conquest by the religion; their belief that the gods took part in human affairs caused great alarm against breaking the law. Numa succeeded in his quest to subdue the Roman spirit. Numa became the Roman par excellence for the people. Machiavelli explains, “Marvelling, therefore, at Numa’s goodness and prudence, the Roman people accepted all his decisions.”[23] Machiavelli goes so far as to say that the Roman people were more indebted to Numa than to Romulus.

However, despite his attempts to temper the Roman spirit away from war it was inevitable that the Romans would once again take up arms. As a result of Numa’s influence, even war was regulated by the priests. The Fecials were charged as guardians of peace and would be dispatched by the Romans to receive satisfaction from injury by another city. If that city refused to provide satisfaction for the injury the Fecials declared war by calling the gods and their country as witnesses. [24] The Salii have their origin from the eight year of Numa’s reign, Plutarch elaborates:

A terrible pestilence, which traversed all Italy, ravaged likewise the city of Rome; and the citizens being in distress and despondent, a brazen target, they say, fell from the heaven into the hands of Numa, who gave them this marvelous account of it: that Egeria and the Muses had assured him it was sent from heaven for the cure and safety of the city, and that, to keep it secure, he was ordered by them to make eleven others, so like in dimensions and form to the original that no thief should be able to distinguish the true from the counterfeit….The keeping of these targets was committed to the charge of certain priests, called Salii….[25]

The Salii priests would carry the shields through the city in March. They wore “short frocks of purple, grit with a broad belt studded with brass; on their heads they wear a brass helmet, and carry in their hands short daggers…”[26] Both of these priesthoods represent the lengths that Romans went to ensure that they were always in the right, specifically the Fecials.

In her first major conquest, Rome took the city of Veii through influences of religion. Machaivelli explains,

During the year, the Alban lake had risen in an extraordinary way, and the Roman solders, tired of the long siege, were desirous of returning to Rome when it was discovered that Apollo and certain other oracles had said that the city of Veii would be taken in the year in which Lake Alba overflowed.[27]

Religion had so conquered the minds of the people that it was able to be used against them as it was in the battle for Veii. The soldiers wishing to leave were swayed to remain in the siege despite their fatigue. After a ten year siege the Romans finally took Veii when Camillus was made dictator. The civil religion demonstrated it’s usefulness in controlling the people ultimately leading to the victory.

Throughout Roman conquest of peninsular Italy the Romans were able to maintain their religion and culture as the Italians had similar religious and cultural views. Yet with the advent of Roman expanisionism, even within Italy itself, the Roman religion began to slowly change although the changes were not as visible as later on beginning with the First Punic War.  Along the way they adapted the gods of various other peoples into their own catalogue of gods. Their conquests lead to the evolution of their gods form primarily Etruscan to a more Greek concept of the deities. Mercury was introduced into Roman society around 494 B.C. as the god of commerce. A century later Hercules was introduced into the pantheon of Roman gods. This Hellenistic tendency of the Romans would continue until the traditional Roman religion founded by Numa was all but a shadow of her former self. This adaptation was used in all situations in order to present the best possible view point. For example, Alan Wardman explains:

The war against Hannibal shows how religious institutions were adapted or borrowed as the Romans faced the most serious invasion in their history. The civil conflicts, including the civil wars, after 113 B.C., provide evidence that the civic gods could be manipulated by both sides…[28]

Rome faced crises that resulted in the expansion of their mythology concerning their gods and in some cases the use of religion against itself as in the civil war.

While Rome added to their catalogue of gods starting with the conquests of the Veii and other Italians, they were in some ways able to maintain their religious identity as given to them by Numa. However, by the time of the First Punic War the Roman religion began to make a major fundamental shift unlike the changes which occurred during the conquest of peninsular Italy. There are two major schools of thought which attempt to describe this change, one is present by Alan Wardman and the other by Alain Hus.

By the late Republic religion had become more political than ever before. Festivals were used by politicians to demonstrate their greatness instead of supplicating the gods. Expansion in the Roman games was enormous; Alan Wardman explains why, “it is a process of adding to religious forms because the politician can make use of them to express his superiority not to the gods but to his would-be peers.” [29] Wardman’s view of the religious changes in Rome is not as serve as other writers. Wardman accounts the changes in Roman Religion with the changes of the political atmosphere of Rome beginning with the Second Punic War. Wardman views the changes in Roman religion as a result of warfare. He states, “Other gods came from towns which Rome had defeated in war….”[30] The changes that occurred around the time of the Second Punic War should be viewed with the changes in politics during the same time period. Rome’s religion was very closely related to their politics and thus any changes within their political structure were bound to have an effect on the religious aspects of the society.

The opposing view on the changes of Rome’s official religion starting during the Second Punic War is presented by Alain Hus. Hus argues that the changes did not occur so much because of Rome’s conquests but because Greek thought had invaded the Roman culture.  The changes in the religious attitude of Rome were perpetuated by the Second Punic War as Hus describes, “The change that was taking place in the religious psychology of the Romans was accelerated by the crisis of exceptional seriousness produced by the Second Punic War.” [31] Greek gods and philosophy were more wildly accepted by the Romans during the Second Punic War especially during the early years when it looked as though Hannibal might succeed in conquering Rome. As a result of the impending doom many abandoned the traditional Roman gods and religion for that of the Hellenistic Greeks. However the problem that existed with this scenario is explained by Hus, “Greek religion was officially substituted for the ancestral Roman religion, just at the time when its preservation in Greece itself was half artificial.” [32] Thus, the Roman people were abandoning their own religion for a religion on the decline in Greece. As a result, like in Greece, the Romans began to turn to cults. Hus explains once more:

The success of these cults and their doctrines, the importance of which during the Republican period should not be exaggerated, bears witness to the inability of the Roman religion, even when Hellenized, to fulfill the spiritual needs of the Romans in these strangely new times.[33]

The official religion was also being directly attacked by the Roman senate when in 181 B.C. they ordered the books of Numa to be destroyed. Religion, while still important to the Romans, had become a skeleton of itself. “Superstition”, Hus argues, “flourished.” [34] Many prominent Romans began to openly question religion and skepticism ran ramped throughout the city.  General disrespect was very prominent in the city during the Second Punic War, as Hus describes, “In the middle of the Second Punic War we find Claudius Pulcher turning up his nose at the sacred hens, and Flaminius proclaiming the futility of supplications to the gods….”[35] The Second Punic War presented a problem for the Romans that they had yet to face in their history. As a result they were more than willing to abandon the gods of the fathers for the gods of the Greeks.

And yet both of these arguments pointing towards a similar point of view; Rome’s expansion into foreign lands, customs and religions lead to a change in their own cultural customs and religion. This was partially precipitated by Rome’s need to govern her new acquisitions, allowing citizens of Rome to become free of Roman authority and develop new ideas. When these provincial governors returned to the city they introduced problems into the Roman constitution, which had been avoided for centuries. This was most evident during the Second Punic War.  Political upheaval as a result of the Second Punic War lead to fear among the Romans, which gave to the belief that their  gods were not longer looking out for them and ultimately lead them to abandon their gods for those of the Greeks. The political situation within Rome was certainly changing slowly during the Second Punic War and after the war. The political and religious aspects of the city were intentionally connected to each other by Numa as previously explored. Religion played a key role in the regal and Republican periods and it is clear by the abandonment of the traditional religion by the Romans that the Romans still viewed religion as important during crisis of the Second Punic War. If this had not been the case then for what reason would the Romans have to accept new gods rather than just simply abandoning religion all together? Certainly there were some who openly were skeptical of religion and disrespect towards the gods was rampant throughout the city. However, the fact Greek religion was imported to Rome during the Second Punic War, and widely accepted by the Roman people, demonstrates that their connection to religion was still strong and that the important role religion played in Roman daily and state life was nevertheless still very strong. Whether or not either side is truly correct is probably never going to be discovered. However, both sides of the argument can be viewed in connection with each other and not in opposition to each other. Rome at the time of the Second Punic War and after was remarkably changed from the time previous to the war. The war played a significant role in the development of both the political and religious life of the city.

Ultimately, the impact of religion on the Roman people following the reign of Romulus is clear. Numa’s foresight that without religion the Roman people would be a brutal city that favored war over peace is remarkable. His religion affected the lives of the Roman people and the city itself throughout the regal and Republican periods. Republican Rome owes much of its prosperity and relative peace to the institution of religion by Numa. The introduction of the gods themselves provided the Romans with a distraction from the earthly. Numa’s additions to the calendar and the introduction of many festivals allowed for the Romans to be preoccupied with the gods even more. Reverence to the gods went so far as to make it near impossible for the Romans to wage war unless it was clearly viewed as a defensive rather than offensive war. Laws regulating morality helped to create a much more humane and civilized people than what had existed during the time of Romulus. Even with the problems of the Second Punic War the importance of religion is still clear to see. For the average person religion was everything and the politicians clearly knew that by providing funds to build more temples or adding more days of festivals to the calendar. Daily and civil life revolved around religion. Without religion it is impossible to know how the Romans would have turned out, or if they would have merely become a footnote for another civilization on its way to historical immortality. Certainly the biggest contribution religion made to the Roman people was in making them able to govern themselves. The Roman Republic certainly survived in part because of the fear of the gods. Without the influence the gods had on the Roman people the Republic could certainly have failed or never been started to begin with. Machiavelli is right when he observes, “So that if it were a question of the ruler to whom Rome was more indebted, Romulus or Numa, Numa, I think, should easily obtain the first place.” [36] Romulus gave the world the city of Rome, but Numa gave a people an identity and soul through religion. Therefore it is Numa, not Romulus who gave us the Roman state that we are familiar with today.

[1] Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses. Translated  by Leslie J. Walker, S.J. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.  Book I section 11 pg. 140

[2] Plutarch. Lives: Volume 1. Translated by John Dryden. Edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.  pg. 85.

Numa’s age at the time he became King is disputed. Cicero places his age at 39.

[3] Plutarch,  83

[4] Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. , 1960.

[5] Plutarch. pg. 87

[6] Plutarch. 2001. pg. 87

[7] Hus, Alain. Greek and Roman Religion. Translated  by S.J. Tester. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962. pg. 103

[8] Hus, 103

[9] Plutarch,  91

[10] Plutarch,  94

[11] Cicero. On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Edited by James E. G. Zetzel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. pg. 41

[12] Plutarch, 96

[13] Plutarch, 97

[14] Plutarch, 98

[15] Cicero, 41

[16] Hus, 109-110

[17] Plutarch,  97

[18] Plutarch,  97

[19] Plutarch, 91

[20] Hus, 100

[21] Livy, 56

[22] Machiavelli,  141 Book I section 11

[23] Machiavelli,  141 Book I section 11

[24] Plutarch, 92

[25] Plutarch, 92-93

[26] Plutarch, 93

[27]Machiavelli, 146 Book II section 13.

[28] Wardman, Alan. Religion and the Statecraft Among the Romans. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982.  pg. 22

[29] Wardman, 24

[30] Ibid.  3

[31] Hus, 135

[32] Ibid. pg. 135

[33] Ibid. pg. 137

[34] Ibid . pg. 136

[35] Ibid. pg 137

[36] Machiavelli, Book I section 11 pg. 140.


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